From Russian Silhouettes: More Stories of Russian Life, by Anton Tchekoff, translated from the Russian by Marian Fell. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, October, 1915.
A Matter of Classics
By Anton Chekhov
BEFORE going to take his Greek examination, Vania Ottopeloff devoutly kissed every icon in the house. He felt a load on his chest and his blood ran cold, while his heart beat madly and sank into his boots for fear of the unknown. What would become of him to-day? Would he get a B or a C? He asked his mother's blessing six times over, and, as he left the house, he begged his aunt to pray for him. On his way to school he gave two copecks to a beggar, hoping that these two coins might redeem him from ignorance and that God would not let those numeral nouns with their terrible "Tessarakontas" and "Oktokaidekas" get in his way.
He came back from school late, at five o'clock, and went silently to his room to lie down. His thin cheeks were white and dark circles surrounded his eyes.
"Well? What happened? What did you get?" asked his mother coming to his bedside.
Vania blinked, made a wry face, and burst into tears. Mamma's jaw dropped, she grew pale and threw up her hands, letting fall a pair of trousers which she had been mending.
"What are you crying for? You have failed, I suppose?" she asked.
"Yes, I've--I've been plucked. I got a C."
"I knew that would happen, I had a presentiment that it would!" his mother exclaimed. "The Lord have mercy on us! What did you fail in?" "In Greek-- Oh, motherÄthey asked me the future of Phero and, instead of answering Oisomai, I answered Opsomai; and then--and then the accent is not used if the last syllable is a diphthong, but--but I got confused, I forgot that the alpha was long and put on the accent. Then we had to decline Artaxerxes and I got muddled and made a mistake in the ablative--so he gave me a C-- Oh, I'm the unhappiest boy in the whole world! I worked all last night--I have got up at four every morning this week--"
"No, it is not you who are unhappy, you good-for-nothing boy, it is I! You have worn me as thin as a rail, you monster, you thorn in my flesh, you wicked burden on your parents! I have wept for you, I have broken my back working for you, you worthless trifler, and what is my reward? Have you learned a thing?"
"I--I study--all night--you see that yourself--"
"I have prayed God to send death to deliver me, poor sinner, but death will not come. You bane of my existence! Other people have decent children, but my only child isn't worth a pin. Shall I beat you? I would if I could, but where shall I get the strength to do it? Mother of God, where shall I get the strength?"
Mamma covered her face with the hem of her dress and burst into tears. Vania squirmed with grief and pressed his forehead against the wall. His aunt came in.
"There, now, I had a presentiment of this!" she exclaimed, turning pale and throwing up her hands as she guessed at once what had happened. "I felt low in my mind all this morning; I knew we should have trouble, and here it is!"
"You viper! You bane of my existence!" exclaimed Vania's mother.
"Why do you abuse him?" the boy's aunt scolded the mother, nervously pulling off the coffee-coloured kerchief she wore on her head. "How is he to blame? It is your fault! Yours! Why did you send him to that school? What sort of lady are you? Do you want to climb up among the gentlefolk? Aha! You will certainly get there at this rate! If you had done as I told you, you would have put him into business as I did my Kuzia. There's Kuzia now making five hundred roubles a year. Is that such a trifle that you can afford to laugh at it? You have tortured yourself and tortured the boy with all this book-learning, worse luck to it! See how thin he is! Hear him cough! He is thirteen years old and he looks more like ten."
"No, Nastenka, no, darling, I haven't beaten that tormentor of mine much, and beating is what he needs. Ugh! You Jesuit! You Mohammedan! You thorn in my flesh!" she cried, raising her hand as if to strike her son. "I should thrash you if I had the strength. People used to say to me when he was still little: 'Beat him! Beat him!' But I didn't listen to them, unhappy woman that I am! So now I have to suffer for it. But wait a bit, I'll have your ears boxed! Wait a bit--"
His mother shook her fist at him and went weeping into the room occupied by her lodger, Eftiki Kuporosoff. The lodger was sitting at his table reading "Dancing Self-Taught." This Kuporosoff was considered a clever and learned person. He spoke through his nose, washed with scented soap that made every one in the house sneeze, ate meat on fast-days, and was looking for an enlightened wife; for these reasons he thought himself an extremely intellectual lodger. He also possessed a tenor voice.
"Dear me!" cried Vania's mother, running into his room with the tears streaming down her cheeks. "Do be so very kind as to thrash my boy! Oh, do do me that favour! He has failed in his examinations! Oh, misery me! Can you believe it, he has failed! I can't punish him myself on account of being so weak and in bad health, so do thrash him for me! Be kind, be chivalrous and do it for me, Mr. Kuporosoff! Have mercy on a sick woman!"
Kuporosoff frowned and heaved a very deep sigh through his nostrils. He reflected, drummed on the table with his fingers, sighed once more, and went into Vania's room.
"Look here!" he began his harangue. "Your parents are trying to educate you, aren't they, and give you a start in life, you miserable young man? Then why do you act like this?"
He held forth for a long time, he made quite a speech. He referred to science, and to darkness and light.
"Yes, indeed, young man!" he exclaimed from time to time.
When he had concluded, he took off his belt and caught hold of Vania's ear.
"This is the only way to treat you!" he exclaimed.
Vania knelt down obediently and put his head on Kuporosoff's knees. His large pink ears rubbed against Kuporosoff's new brown-striped trousers.
Vania made not a sound. That evening at a family conclave it was decided to put him into business at once.